A 1912 report in the Rodney & Otamatea Times is being shared everywhere. Is it real, where did it come from, and why is it proving so popular?
On Wednesday August 14, in the winter of 1912, a reader of the Warkworth-based Rodney & Otamatea Times (incorporating the Waitematā & Kaipara Gazette) who had shelled out the thruppence for the newspaper and made it as far as the seventh of its eight pages, might have scanned their eye across to the third column and arrived at “Science Notes and News”, a collection of short items from around the world. Beneath snippets on a very deep hole in Germany, on nickel kitchen utensils, and on a new “machine for skipping” that not only “turns the rope but records the number of skips”, came a paragraph-long report that more than a century later has achieved a status the very description of which would have baffled its reader and writer alike. It has gone viral.
“COAL CONSUMPTION AFFECTING CLIMATE,” was the headline. “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year,” it began. “When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”
And that was it. Science Notes and News proceeded without pause to other matters of the day, such as a new tunnel in Russia and the qualities of asparagus in light of the “awful odor which the use of this article of food causes in one of the bodily excretions”.
But it was the succinct, matter-of-fact 1912 nugget on carbon and climate that survived, or was reborn, in the leadup to its 110th birthday, shared by tens of thousands and viewed by millions on social media in response to this:
British Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, who recently opposed a plan to open a new coal mine in Cumbria, joined the party.
They were not the first, however, to disinter the August 14, 1912 edition of the Rodney & Otamatea Times (incorporating the Waitematā & Kaipara Gazette). The same 67-word report circled the digital world in 2016, in 2018 and again in 2021.
The report is authentic, certainly, and has passed every fact-check examiner it has faced. You can read it yourself on New Zealand’s best website, Papers Past. But, sadly, it was not the work of an industrious Warkworth journalist. It had earlier appeared in both British and Australian titles. The entire page, in fact, was published four weeks earlier by the Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal in New South Wales: holes, tunnels, skipping machine, coal consumption, everything. Even the layout and typography is identical, suggesting the plate may have been shipped over the Tasman after they were done with it.
That version of the story has had its viral moments, too, albeit not on the scale of the Rodney & Otamatea Times. A 2016 Facebook post on the Dispatch and Journal report by the Braidwood Museum “reached over 180,000 people”, according to the Braidwood Times (the Dispatch folded in 1958). “The most common comment has been ‘Wow’,” a Braidwood Historical Society committee member told the paper.
Whether Braidwood, Rodney or wherever, the words of the item have since been traced by science writer Alex Kasprak back to Popular Mechanics magazine, then published out of Chicago, and its March 1912 edition, where they can be found in the caption to an image illustrating an article on the “Remarkable weather of 1911”.
Even by the remarkable-weather year of 1911, the central tenets of the climate science that endures today had been around for some while. In 1824, French mathematician Joseph Fourier crunched numbers that suggested our planet, given its distance from the sun, should be cooler, and posited the existence of a blanket-like layer in the atmosphere. In 1856, the American scientist Eunice Foote published a paper that identified the predominant ingredient of that heat-absorbent blanket: carbon dioxide.
Given all that, why did the Rodney & Otamatea Times clipping catch the social media tide? It has the advantage of concision and clarity, sheeting crisply home just how long our species has known about global heating – since long before the denialism and inaction became a talking point – in keeping with the observation by Benjamin Franklin on the failures to address the dangers of lead despite six decades of evidence: “You will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist, before it is generally received and practised on.” As for the Rodney masthead, the fact it emanates from a country largely isolated at the bottom of the world just emphasises that. And even when it’s not wholly true, the idea of New Zealand as a progressive pioneer prevails.
More prosaically, it may just be a matter of right time, right place – and it seems it was a New Zealand group, the Sustainable Business Network, that first shared the report on social media, in 2016. “Whether something goes viral on social media typically depends on factors like timing, novelty, irreverence or use of humour, the ease to share, public understanding of the message, etcetera,” said Alex Beattie, a specialist in media and climate change based at the Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington. “But there’s no exact science or proven formula.”
‘If you look through news archives and scientific journals there are many of these warnings dating back to the 1800s,” said Rebecca Priestley, a historian of climate change and associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington.
She joins the dots between one example from the Christchurch Press in 1957, headlined “Threat From Melting Of Polar Ice Caps”, and this week’s policy announcements in New Zealand. The Press report “warns of global warming leading to sea level rise”, said Priestley, “but it’s only now, in 2022 – when we can see and measure the effects of sea level rise, and make projections about what the next few decades will bring – that we’re really starting to take sea level rise seriously and start planning for it with measures outlined in the just published National Adaptation Plan.”
Priestley continued: “When we see old news reports like this, it’s important that we don’t just beat ourselves up for not responding to climate change sooner. These early warnings and hypotheses led to decades of scientific research that has provided us with evidence of why and how and how fast our global climate is changing. And that evidence is now clear. The first IPCC report was published in 1990, and the evidence for climate change has been getting stronger with every report.”
The latest report, in April this year, came with a press release that read, “The evidence is clear: the time for action is now. We can halve emissions by 2030,” noted Priestley. “But those of us encouraging change, and trying to enact change, are really aware that there are businesses, governments and individuals with such vested interests in the status quo that they are working against action on climate change.
Priestley, whose PhD is in the history of science, admitted to finding old news reports on climate change fascinating, but urged us to face the right way. “The only thing we can change is the future. The climate is changing, the oceans are warming, the ice sheets are melting, but what happens next is not inevitable, it’s up to us, collectively,” she said. “We need to do everything we can to meet our Paris Agreement targets, because two degrees warming is not as bad as 3 degrees warming, and three degrees warming is not as bad as four degrees warming. And so on. As the Extinction Rebellion call says, ‘the science is clear, our future is not’.”
As for the Rodney & Otamatea Times (incorporating the Waitematā & Kaipara Gazette), it was bought up by Fairfax in 2005 and today continues, as the abbreviated Rodney Times, published weekly on a Thursday. It noted its own moment in the social media spotlight back in 2016, remarking, half a tongue in cheek: “The Rodney Times has always provided insightful content to readers. In fact, we even predicted climate change more than 100 years ago!”